Welcome To The Jungle: Thailand’s Khao Yai National Park

Waterfall in Khao Yai National Park, Thailand
Adam Hodge, Gadling

I was 12 years old when I discovered the jungle wasn’t for me, and I hadn’t even been to one yet.

It was “Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World” that did it for me. Enthralled though I was by the idea of a Professor Challenger-esque expeditionary jaunt into unchartered territory, I was quite perturbed by some scenes in the movie. Even when you took away the dinosaurs, the tropical landscape seemed treacherous and thick with danger.

For instance, even the ground was unreliable. More than one character in the movie slipped on the unpredictable muddy jungle floor, often accompanied by a onomatopoeic schlippp and was promptly eaten. The hippie paleontologist lost his footing on wet rock. Crunch. “That’s not for me,” I thought. I don’t care for the wet.

Then the “moveable feast” fled through a break in the woods and into the long grass. “Don’t go into the long grass!” one of the characters urgently and repeatedly screamed as they did, and I nodded yes, listen to that man – for the long grass hid dozens of velociraptors. And, I thought, thousands of leeches. Sound advice either way.

Several years later I went on a jungle trek in Costa Rica, which I anticipated with a certain amount of dread. The real thing was stickier, itchier, sweatier and wetter. In short, it was much worse. The real world, as I discovered was far more sinister than “The Lost World.”

But I’m nothing if not forgiving. I gave jungles repeated chances throughout my travels via a certain amount of self-inflicted amnesia and a masochistic determination to enjoy the ecosystem. I like the idea of the jungle in principle – full of life, and so on. So I hiked in India, Malaysia and other tropical places, each time with the same itchy, sticky, anxiety-inducing result.

Then I heard about Khao Yai National Park, supposedly one of Thailand’s unsung treasures, and I knew it was time to test myself again.It’s Thailand’s most popular park, but the vast majority of tourists are Thai. Some 74,000 foreigners visited in 2011, which sounds like a lot. But compare that to Phuket, Koh Samui or Chiang Mai, which each receive over 2 million foreign visitors a year. Around 240,000 foreigners visit out-of-the-way Sukhothai, a six- or seven-hour bus ride from Bangkok. Khao Yai, as far as Thailand goes, remains “undiscovered.”

With a quixotic resolve I decided to check it out, and I made the 125-mile drive in good time, paying my $16 entrance fee and $1 camping fee as I rolled in during the early afternoon. I had seen an elephant by the side of the road on the way in. “This is promising,” I thought.

My second wildlife experience came soon after, as I rounded a bend and almost ran over an entire troop of pig-tailed macaques. They ambled up onto a guardrail and watched me blankly as I drove by. I have had some particularly poor experiences with macaques, who I consider to be the jerks of the jungle. Yet these simply stared at me placidly. The jungle was increasing in esteem in my mind.

Macaques in Khao Yai National Park, Thailand
Adam Hodge, Gadling

To be fair, I hadn’t left my car, nor had I been in the jungle, really. But that such simple things would improve my opinion of this place should indicate how much of a nightmare I had come to consider it to be. I stopped at the small park canteen and ate a notably average late lunch, and my opinion of the jungle soared yet again.

My campsite was located in a pleasant clearing, and I was one of only four other campers there. We were outnumbered almost 10-1 by a herd of sambar deer, the most bovine representatives of the family cervidae. A small pond broke melodically into a wide and short waterfall just beyond my tent, the soft music of which was joined by the near-ceaseless chomping of the campsite’s immobile platoon of ruminants. I counted this as another point for the jungle. Just as I was thinking this, a Great Hornbill soared overhead and planted itself on a tree at the edge of the forest. “Wow,” I thought. “Maybe I have the jungle all wrong.”

As the sun went down, I met an old German couple that told me they were going on a night safari, and would I like to join? Of course I did. We hopped in the back of a pick-up and with the aid of a massive spotlight were able to spot several porcupines, some muntjacs, civet cats and even an Asian narrow-headed soft-shelled turtle. “This is going swimmingly,” I thought, and congratulated myself on my own perseverance.

I went to bed early in a positive frame of mind. As I fell asleep to the sound of pattering rain on the tent roof and the incessant mastication of the vigilant deer, I noted to myself with a certain amount of foreboding that I had yet to actually go into the jungle proper.

Sabar deer in Khao Yai National Park, Thailand
Adam Hodge, Gadling

In the morning I awoke with a start to the sound of car tires on gravel right next to my tent and checked the time: 4:45 a.m. “I wonder who would be leaving now,” I thought. It’s still dark. I listened more closely. The car appeared to be rolling back and forth just next to my head, tires crunching gravel. But I heard no engine. It stopped unexpectedly and I fell asleep but awoke minutes later to the same noise. I rolled over and unzipped the flap ready to deliver an inquisition. Bursting forth from the flap a terrified group of sambar deer bounded away. They had been ripping up the grass on all sides of my tent. I grabbed a handful and yanked, and it sounded like the crunch of a car tire on gravel. What I thought was a car was just a herd of insatiable deer.

I fell back asleep and awoke again 30 minutes later when the deer returned. I yelled and heard them stop. They resumed moments later. I tried to sleep, tossing and turning for another hour, dreaming of eating venison. Eventually I admitted defeat and tore down my campsite. “Oh well,” I thought, “I’ll get a good start on the day.”

Clothed and fed, I arrived at the trailhead for what was to be a five-hour walk, passing through long grass, a salt lick where I hoped to see elephants and, finally, the heavily treed forest where if I was lucky I might spot some gibbons.

The rain from the night before had made the path through the grassland extremely slick. I stopped and read a sign that had been covered by long pointy grass. Cogon grass, it said, is “… a favorite food for sambar deer and guar. Once mature, however, the leaves become hard and develop sharp, serrated edges that deter foraging animals and can cut curious humans.” Don’t go into the long grass.

Khao Yai National Park, Thailand
Adam Hodge, Gadling

On the way to the forest I passed the salt lick. The only evidence of elephants was a giant pile of dung. One can’t fault the elephants for not being around, I thought, and went on into the forest.

No sooner had I passed the treeline than my head became the focal point for the errant orbit of several large biting insects. They seemed impervious to the bug-spray shower I had taken that morning.

I pressed on, slipping along the muddy path and sweating heavily inside my jacket. It was only 9 in the morning and the sky was overcast, but the humidity was intolerable. I had a choice between exposing my skin to all manner of itchy things or mentally working through my portable sweat lodge. I went with the sweat lodge.

It’s extremely difficult to actually see anything interesting in the jungle. For one, the dense canopy makes it much darker at ground level. Since the jungle can be so thick even at eye level, you’re depth of field is limited as well. Add to this the fact that most animals don’t want to be seen or live in the canopy a hundred feet up and you don’t see much fauna of any note. Mostly, you see fungi and bugs – bugs that seem bent on using your body as a ladder, ambulatory transport or food.

Fungi in Khao Yai National Park, Thailand
Adam Hodge, Gadling

It had occurred to me as I was swatting things off and looking despairingly for any sign of quadrupedic or avian life that I had seen numerous paths diverge from what I judged was the main route. It had also occurred to me I had seen no signs on which to base this judgment. And then as the cloud of flying things around my head thickened and the clamor of the jungle swelled to a dull roar, I walked into a small clearing in which there were no signs but some four or five distinctive paths leading out.

At a loss and trying to wrest my sanity back from the little buzzing satellites around my ears, I plowed on down my best guess. Some 30 minutes later, the jungle was thicker and the path was winding down a steep muddy slope. I had the sense I was heading the wrong way, but there was no way to tell. Then, schlippp. Airborne and horizontal above a muddy hill. I thought, “Jungle, you got me again.”

Three hours into my walk and covered in mud, sweat and insect bits, I emerged into a field – the same field I had entered from. Notably, this wasn’t supposed to be an out-and-back hike. I had been turned around completely at some point, but I didn’t care. I was in the long grass, which at this point was much preferable to the jungle.

Caterpillar in Khao Yai National Park, Thailand
Adam Hodge, Gadling

I stomped out of the forest, past the salt lick, across the field of grass that wanted to watch me bleed and into the parking lot. I went to take a photo of the lethal grass for posterity and noticed my lens cap had gone missing. The jungle had truly taken its pound of flesh.

As I approached my car, the old German couple was standing under an umbrella gazing up at a tree and making quiet exclamations. I paused to greet them, and they looked at me slightly unnerved, taking a step back. I realized I must look out of sorts. They recomposed themselves and the husband, cleared his throat. “Look,” he motioned to the tree, “gibbons!”

I looked up at the gibbons and sighed. Then I looked down at my feet. Grinning to myself, I pointed at my legs. “Look,” I said to the Germans, “leeches!” I had acquired some five or six now-bloated passengers on my expedition. They looked at me smiling at them enthusiastically, which in retrospect I realize doesn’t make me seem all that sane, and they took another step back. I flicked off the leeches and waved the Germans goodbye.

Jungle Valley in Khao Yai National Park, Thailand
Adam Hodge, Gadling

I changed out of my filthy, sweaty clothes and drove off through the park, cursing the jungle. “This is the last time,” I thought. Then I passed a lookout, with a stunning view of a deep-green valley suffused with low-lying cloud. During the pause, I reflected on everything pre-trek. I realized that I like the jungle in theory, but I prefer to see it through a pane of glass or an elevated position.

But with time comes reflection. And due to my more-than-tolerable experience at Khao Yai the night prior to my own personal “Jurassic Park” sequel, my jungle rating had been raised from mild hatred to general disdain. I don’t think there’s a much higher recommendation I could give to Khao Yai.

Trekking Couple Circles Planet Three Times In 424 Days

trekking

They started trekking the planet more than a year ago, promising to travel the globe bringing children in classrooms from around the world with them, virtually, as they visited scores of countries and continents. Now their journey is complete and Darren and Sandy Van Soye are back to tell about it.

The story begins in February 2012, when the couple from Southern California started on a global adventure to raise awareness about world geography and make the subject more accessible to children. Hoping to visit 50 countries on six continents in 424 days, they planned to share the journey with more than 700 classrooms representing 50,000 students.

“Our dream is to educate children about geography and world cultures so we’ve planned the ultimate trek around the world to do just that,” Sandy Van Soye told Gadling when they began. In January of this year after passing the 50,000 mile mark, they had stopped in 40 countries with another dozen or so to go before returning to the United Sates. At the time, they had already beaten their own projections with 850 classrooms in 20 countries following their journey online.

Now with their world trek complete, the Van Soyes have traveled a total of 77,000 miles or the equivalent of three times around the earth at its equator. Their trek is an impressive amount of travel in such a short period of time for sure. But how they went about it is even more interesting.Starting on January 28, 2012, the journey began aboard a cruise ship, Princess CruisesPacific Princess, a small ship, which proved to be an efficient mode of transportation.

“We used cruise ships to get us between continents so that we could see more of the world,” said Sandy Van Soye. Spending 97 days of the nearly 500-day trek at sea the couple racked up 35 ports in 18 countries. An impressive number but travel via cruise ship is not the fastest way to be sure. From San Diego, it took 29 days to reach Sydney Australia, normally a 16- or 17-hour flight. But along the way, they visited Hawaii, American Samoa, Fiji and New Zealand.

trekkingAfter a seven-day trek in Tasmania, the team boarded another cruise ship, Ocean Princess to travel near Australia’s eastern coast, along the way visiting the Great Barrier Reef, the city of Darwin, Bali, Indonesia, and Ko Samui, Thailand, before arriving in Singapore. At each stop, they selected travel plans that would show students following along the natural beauty and unique people they encountered.

On land for the next eight months via a series of multiple day hikes, they visited 27 more countries in Asia, Europe and Africa before boarding the Pacific Princess in Rome. That Mediterranean sailing crossed the Atlantic Ocean, sailing up the Amazon River all the way to Manaus, Brazil.

Two months on land took them through 4,600 miles of South America before the final leg of their trek a voyage on Star Princess in Valparaíso, Chile, for their fifth and final cruise home.

trekkingOf all the places they went, which was their favorite? Kenya because of its rich culture and natural beauty

“It is a place that kids (have) heard of, so it was a pleasure to go there and talk more about it,” said Sandy of their visit to three Kenyan schools, one in the Maasai Mara and two in the Samburu region.

The biggest surprise along the way? Riga, Latvia

“There was just so much to see and do here and, though it is a capital city, it was relatively inexpensive,” said Sandy.

In addition to a lifetime of memories, the Van Soye’s trek produced a library of 60 four-page education modules for teachers available as supplements to existing classroom materials.
Also, their Trekking the Planet website contains free articles, quizzes, more than 70 documentary videos and a summary infographic: “Trekking The Planet: By The Numbers.

So is that the end of the road for this couple? Hardly.

Driven by the fact that nearly a third of U.S. young adults cannot locate the Pacific Ocean on a map, Trekking the Planet hopes to help educators change these statistics with future geography-oriented projects.


[Photo credit – TrekkingThePlanet]

Dim Sum Dialogues in Thailand: Ko Samui

My ears are still ringing from the stacks of speakers that exhilarated Haad Rin all night. The lack of sleep is making my eyes heavy, but the lurching of the ferry refuses to let my body sleep.

I’m departing Ko Pha Ngan and am en route to Ko Samui – the largest island in the Surat Thani province, and the third largest island in Thailand. It’s a forty minute ride from the beaches of Haad Rin, and when we arrive, there is another entourage of taxi drivers and hotel workers with signs and suggestions for lodging.

The island was first inhabited by Malay and Chinese settlers, the name is thought to have come from a degeneracy of the Chinese word Saboey, which translates in English as “safe haven”. A welcome thought for those looking to escape the aftermath of a full moon party.
With a population of 50,000 people over an area of 228 km2, Samui is considerably more developed than Pha Ngan, and lacks the quaint charm of the smaller island.

Riding on a scooter through the town of Baan Chaweng, it’s easy to see that tourism is the island’s main source of income – especially in this area, which is known for attracting rowdy backpackers.

The streets are an overwhelming barrage of polychromatic signs that advertise hostels, restaurants and luxury beach resorts. I dodge a few bikini and boardshort-clad tourists, weave past tuk tuks congesting the road, and inhale the sharp scent of thai food being grilled up near the street.

I park the scooter near the sand and walk past countless oceanfront resorts. The establishments are guarded by sun-beds and banana-leaf umbrellas in neat rows. Older couples lie stretched out in the sunshine, eager to work on their tan. They thumb through paperback books, only to lay their head on the sun-bed and close their eyes.

There are fancy swimming pools. Security guards. Valet attendants. Buffet lunches. There are families here. It’s a vacation destination – a different vibe than the island across the channel.

But it wasn’t always this way. Until the 1940’s, there were no roads or cars on Samui. There was no outside influence. The inhabitants traveled everywhere by foot or by boat. Then, in the 1970’s, backpackers began to access the island by way of coconut boats. A handful of bungalows were created and travelers on the island began to increase.

By the 1990’s, ferries of passengers were arriving on the island, and investors began to build five-star resorts in order to compete with Phuket as a tourist destination. Once Bangkok Airways committed to fund and build the island’s only airport, Samui’s fate as a tourist destination was sealed.

It’s a great tourist destination at that. Beautiful, large beaches. Several waterfalls. Plenty of day-hiking & trekking. Golfing. Kayaking. Boxing. ATV’s. Elephant riding. Paintball. The list goes on – there is no shortage of things to do on the island. It’s just not the low-key hippy haven that it once was.

Parts of the island reminds me of Phuket – pockets of upscale resorts are interspersed with areas containing cheap bars and a more rowdy atmosphere. But my general feeling is that Samui is cleaner, less tacky, and more family friendly than Phuket. The beaches are just as beautiful, and Samui will still be less developed in 5 years than Phuket is now.

If I were forced to choose between the two for a week long vacation, there is absolutely no doubt that I would head to Samui over Phuket.

After a little over 36 hours on the island, I have to catch a flight back to Bangkok. As much as I would like to stay, I’m also looking forward to one more night in Bangkok, and on the Khao San.

I step into the welcome area of the tiny tropical airport, and any last doubts that I have between Phuket and Samui are completely gone. The airport is a beautiful, well laid out, and very easy to access from almost anywhere on the island. The waiting lounges feature comfortable couches under large wooden ceiling fans. There is live news broadcast on brand new TV’s. Free coffee, juice, chocolate rolls, and WIFI. After a long week of questionable toilets, ferries, buses, and train transit – it’s heaven…or in the least, a safe haven.

If you’ve missed the previous articles in this series, be sure to check out the entire Dim Sum Dialogues column for more on the road from Bangkok to Ko Pha Ngan.

Dim Sum Dialogues in Thailand: The road (+ rail + ferry) to Ko Pha Ngan

The neon pink taxi screeches to a halt. “You must be the best taxi driver in Bangkok.” I declare to the driver, and I mean it.

Moments ago we were at a complete standstill for nearly twenty minutes, in the center of a jammed four-lane road. An everyday occurrence in Bangkok. I had already started considering alternate travel plans, since I was sure that I’d be missing the southbound train.

Could I still make it to Ko Pha Ngan for the full moon party? Were there night buses? How could I have been so foolish as to not account for traffic on the way to the station? And of course, how much would the miscalculation end up costing me?
Luckily, the taxi driver was capable of maneuvers that I didn’t know were possible in a moving vehicle. And apparently, he was used to performing them in these situations. The two previous drivers that I had hailed took one look at the departure time on my train ticket and laughed, telling me it wasn’t likely and then quoting an equally unlikely fare. But this courageous driver gave a grin and said “Don’t know, but think it’s possible. We try.”

He nods at me in the mirror and I hand him the amount on the meter plus a few extra baht. I exit the car and rush towards the departures board in the large open-air station. I find the correct platform and at the end of it, the one sleeper car of the train. The sleeper car is easy to spot – a few gargantuan North Face® backpacks are clumsily making an effort to squeeze through the train’s doors. Bingo.

The train is basic. There are no compartments, but rather fold out bunks – two to a berth, with curtains to shut out the light that would remain on all night. In the berths adjacent to me: a girl from Prague, a couple from England, a DJ from Italy, and a Thai family. The train starts rolling, and the sun sets over small packets of wooden shacks that weren’t visible from the lively streets of the city. As we get further outside of Bangkok, the sharp smell of bonfires becomes more frequent and the landscape gradually transitions into dense palm trees.

With every station stop, vendors come on board carrying tea, small cakes, and snacks down the aisles. Instead, I opt to make a trip to the restaurant car where a few tourists are seated playing card games and staring out the window. A young British man that’s had a few too many Changs is asleep at one of the tables, oblivious to the chatter and laughter around him. I ask some of the others for the best strategy to find lodging on Ko Phan Ngan the day before the full moon party – I’ve not booked anything in advance.

Halfway through the night, the spirited head waiter of the restaurant car begins to hook up a television and an amplifier. I’m unable to figure out what’s happening until it’s too late. Thai karaoke.

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I would’ve paid more for my ticket if I’d known the train included karaoke, but I guess some gifts in life are free. I try to keep a straight face along with the rest of the tourists in the car, as the slightly tipsy waiter sings his heart out to the songs and the equally humorous music videos that accompany the audio.

(Listen to a quick sample of the karaoke by clicking play)

There’s an inaudible sigh of relief when the Italian DJ offers to hook his computer up to the amplifier and spin some electronic music. Conversation resumes, and it’s a memorable scene: warm summer air drifting through the open train windows. The unhurried repetition of the train’s wheels on the tracks. Scattered palm trees floating by, reflecting light from a nearly-full moon perched high in the night sky. And a little techno music to help prepare us backpackers for the scene that awaits in Ko Pha Ngan.

At four in the morning, those of us departing the train at Surat Thani are prompted awake by the conductors and shuffle out into the bitter morning air. There is a large coach waiting at the train station for those that bought combination tickets – which conveniently whisks us to another bus stop that is packed with other frazzled, sleep-deprived full-moon pilgrims.

One more hour-long coach ride takes us to a ferry pier, where about 150 people sprawl out in under the early morning sun to catch a few moments of sleep. I’ve never traveled with so many other tourists at one time, and I realize that it’s probably the closest I’ve ever come to being on a guided tour. It’s a nice feeling. I don’t have to worry about where I’m going…just follow the crowd.

Eventually the fatigued mass is corralled onto a narrow boat. As the ferry begins to cut through the choppy sea, passengers take turns basking in the sun on the outdoor deck and retreating to the indoor seating area to buy a freshly made ham sandwich.

There’s not much conversation among the passengers at this point, so I silently take a seat next to a few people dangling their legs off the side of the upper deck. The seawater sprays our bare feet and we stare out across the Gulf of Thailand, searching for a glimpse of our destination.

For the previous articles in this series, be sure to check out the entire Dim Sum Dialogues column. If you’re looking to do a similar trip and would like details on the specifics of the transport, feel free to leave a comment below.